A Victorian farmer has apologised for damaging a 1,500-year-old Aboriginal heritage site, saying he was not aware it was heritage-listed and did not know the rocks he moved were part of the significant site.
The Kuyung stone arrangement, a 176-metre-long formation in the shape of a juvenile eel, sits on land that has been owned by the McMaster family, one of the early settlers of Lake Bolac in south-western Victoria, for about 150 years.
Adrian McMaster has acted as caretaker for the property since his father died in 2018. He told Guardian Australia he cleared stones on the lower part of the hill, near the road, to make a track for a boom sprayer. He said he did not know the site was heritage-listed but knew that the stones at the top of the hill were of significance to Aboriginal people and not to be touched. He told Guardian Australia he did not think that prohibition applied to the stones lower down the hill.
“We made a mistake, we shifted a few rocks, and I am very apologetic and I am very sorry it happened,” he said.
“If I had known it was a heritage site it would not have been touched, I am saying that now. We would not have had a machine go near those rocks.”
The stone arrangement was first recorded and included on the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register in 1975. It is one of the largest and best-known stone arrangements in Victoria.
Officers from the regulator, Aboriginal Victoria, visited the site on Tuesday and interviewed McMaster as part of an investigation into the alleged damage, and issued a stop work order. Under the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act, the penalty for causing unauthorised harm to a heritage site is a fine of up to $297,396 for individuals and up to $1,652,000 for corporations.
McMaster said he did not know much about the site, “just that the big stones up the top were meant to be in the shape of an eel”.
Asked if he knew it had been heritage-listed since 1975, McMaster said: “I did not know that, no.
“No one has ever mentioned it or put a sign there to say it is [heritage listed],” he said.
He said he had never met with the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, the traditional owners and Registered Aboriginal Party for the site. He knows that his father met with a group of Aboriginal people about the site, but he said he did not know who they were or what was discussed.
Marcus Clarke, the chief executive of the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, said on Tuesday that traditional owners were “devastated” by the damage to the site and described photos showing the impact as “pretty traumatic”.
A group of traditional owners will come to the property on Thursday to survey the damage.
“I already said I can put the rocks back if they want, it’s not hard to put them back,” he said. “I put them in a stockpile with all the other rocks that I picked up in the paddock so I would not do damage to the boom spray.
McMaster said he removed the rocks so he could get a boom spray in to spray the paddock, which he said had been overrun with weeds and was a fire risk. He had previously put sheep in the paddock but said he needed to spray to get rid of the thistles.
“It could be a fire hazard to the town,” he said. “That was my main objective, my duty of care to the town of Lake Bolac.”
He added: “I didn’t realise that the rocks I moved were part of a heritage site. But to get a boom spray into it the rocks had to be moved. I knew not to touch the rocks up the top because I was told they were the rocks that could not be moved … I did not know that they were heritage-listed. I just knew that they were rocks that I could not touch … I knew that they were Aboriginal rocks or Indigenous rocks and I could not touch them and they have not been touched.”
McMaster said he was “disappointed that there was no proper conversation years ago” about the extent of the site, and the fact of its heritage listing.
“There’s no markings there, no signs, nothing,” he said.
The Federation of Victorian Traditional Owner Corporations said the incident showed the need for private landholders, and non-Indigenous Victorians more generally, to be better educated about Aboriginal cultural heritage.
“The idea that private landholders might not be aware that such important sites exist, despite being registered with the state government, is horrifying,” CEO Paul Paton said. “And if it’s found that they did understand the significance of the site and proceeded to destroy it anyway, then I’m sure we’d all want to see the maximum penalty apply so that a deterrent is made clear for all to see.”